This is the first in a series of posts, where I look back at artists, songs and albums that meant much to me at various time in my life and reflect on what they mean to me. This first installment tackles the band that got me through my teenage years: The Almighty Who.
In March of 2007, after nearly a decade of trying, I finally saw The Who in concert. As a teenager, they were my favorite band. Between the ages of 16 and 20, I would have given anything to see them. To call me obsessive would have been an understatement.
Months prior to the show, I prepared myself by listening to the band’s catalogue. I quickly pulled Who’s Next, Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend’s power chords brought me back to my high school days. As other kids pulled into the school parking lot listening to Sublime and Third Eye Blind, my car speakers erupted with Pete Townshend’s power chords and Keith Moon’s violet and manic drumming.
Even before I went, I knew this was going to be the best show I would ever see. It wasn’t just nostalgia. The Who were always known as chaotic and wild performers. I had heard numerous bootlegs of their shows from the early 2000s, and even without John Entwistle they could still outplay most bands a quarter of their age.
That was much was certainly true of the show I saw. The Who played with more aggression and fire than most bands a quarter their age? Pete Townshend leapt and played with usual aggression much to the crowd’s delight. Roger Daltrey was in fine form as well – still able to perform his signature scream at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. This was not a band going through the motions.
When the show ended, something strange happened: I was disappointed. The show itself was great, but after years of anticipation, I felt let down. This should have been the greatest show of my life! Pete did the windmill! Roger swung his microphone! They played “Baba O’Riley”! They played “Sparks”! Instead of gushing about the show afterwards, I just had the feeling of “meh”.
I spent the next few days trying to figure out what this meant. Was something wrong with me, that I no longer was excited about seeing a band? Had I seen too many shows over the past few years? To paraphrase Pete Townshend: was it in my head?
Feeling slightly depressed, I put on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I discovered him in college and he quickly became my favorite artist. Each time I listened to one of his songs I heard something different in the lyrics. I realized then, that I no longer felt that way about The Who’s music. They seemed to be a band for teenage angst, while Dylan tackled more complex and adult issues.
It would be another few years before I listened to The Who again.
In high school, The Who weren’t just an obsession. They were the soundtrack to my confusion and isolation. The characters in Pete Townshend’s songs – Tommy, Jimmy, the snot-nosed and angry kids who narrate “Substitute” and “My Generation”, the young kid who discovers pin-ups and masturbation in “Pictures of Lily” – perfectly matched the awkwardness and the self-consciousness I felt.
My first real introduction to the band was through my older sister. For my 15th birthday, she gave me a copy of the band’s famed Live at Leeds album. On the way back from her house, I sat in the back of my parent’s car and put the CD in my disc man. Almost immediately, I was hooked. The opening song, “Heaven and Hell” was unlike anything I had ever heard. Keith Moon’s drums crashed wildly. Pete Townshend’s solos were fiery and chaotic. John Entwistle’s bass lines were thick and clearly audible
But it was the next song – “I Can’t Explain” that really caught my attention with its inward looking lyrics:
Got a feeling inside (Can’t explain)
It’s a certain kind (Can’t explain)
I feel hot and cold (Can’t explain)
Yeah down in my soul (Can’t explain)
No song had perfectly captured my own insecure feelings like this. Townshend’s lyrics were so simple and direct, but I felt like he wrote this song specifically for me. And the music was pummeling and forceful. I could identify with the character, but also hide behind the band’s power and aggression.
By the time I finished listening to the album, I was truly hooked. They were unlike any band I had ever heard. Every single song on the Leeds album was played for maximum impact. The power-pop songs like “Happy Jack” and “I’m a Boy” were tight and furious. In contrast the extended jams on “My Generation” and “Magic Bus” showed a band that could go in any direction they wanted.
Soon after that, I decided to pick up as many of the band’s albums as I could. I quickly added The Kids Are Alright, The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next to my collection. Within a few weeks, I had become a die-hard Who fan. Just as R.E.M. had been the band of my childhood, The Who were the band of my turbulent teenage years.
While I loved all of their albums, it was the band’s 6th album Quadrophenia that really left a mark. Through the character of Jimmy, Pete Townshend perfectly captured teenage angst. Is there a better representation of teenage confusion than when Daltrey screams, “Can you see the real me? Can ya?!” Jimmy’s self-identity issues mirrored my own. Though I didn’t have the rage or drug issues that Jimmy had, I could still relate to feeling a bit adrift. I didn’t really have a clue what life would be like after high school. Beyond that little bubble, the world outside seemed uncertain and scary.
Though some have suggested that Townshend’s idea to incorporate the four different personalities of the band into the album, I found it to be very apt. Some days, I felt like a completely different person than I had the day before. I wanted to be liked and please many, but there was also a side of me that desperately wanted to choose my own path and not care what anybody thought. I felt pulled in many different directions. “I’m being pushed round, I’m being put down,” Daltrey sings in “The Dirty Jobs”. I knew the feeling.
It was Pete Townshend’s solo Empty Glass that got me back into The Who. Even though I stopped listening to The Who, I still gravitated to this album. Unlike most of The Who’s catalogue (with the exception of The Who By Numbers and a few other songs) Empty Glass was a deeply personal album. Throughout the album, he tackles his problems with drugs and alcohol, attacks his critics and gives two of his best love songs (“A Little is Enough” and “Let My Love Open the Door”.) It’s brutually honest and not that far removed from Blood on the Tracks and Plastic Ono Band. Empty Glass felt grown-up and real.
With a renewed interest in Townshend’s songwriting, I started listening to The Who again. The songs felt different than they had a few years earlier when I saw the band live. The teenage attachments were no longer present. I realized how much of a pioneer Townshend was.
Obviously, I knew his use of feedback, power chords and the synthesizer were ground-breaking. What really struck me Townshend was probably one of the first songwriters in rock who wanted to connect with his audience in an emotional and visceral way. True, many of his characters were fictional, and many were written outside of his own perspective, but he was constantly searching for a spiritual connection with his fans. Though Lifehouse was aborted, its attempt was to make the music and its audience one. Townshend wanted the listeners to be part of the music and participate in it with him, not just listen to it.
Tommy’s revelation at the end of the album wasn’t just about his own journey. He fed off those who followed him: “Listening to you/I get the music/Following you, I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet” goes the chorus at the end of “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” Similarly, “Join Together” demanded that the audience “join together with the band.” Listening to The Who isn’t so much of a solo experience, but rather a communal one.
This interaction with the audience might be a good indicator of why the First Responders of 9/11 reacted with such enthusiasm when the band played at the Concert for New York City in October of 2011. No doubt that the band played their asses off. Unlike the other acts who offered reflective, somber or uplifting songs the band chose to play supercharged versions of “Baba O’Riley”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You”. As Pete Townshend flailed around on stage and struck his guitar (he didn’t so much as play as attack it) the audience roared in approval. For those few moments, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle proved that music is not only important but also necessary.
As for me, I doubt I’ll ever give up on The Who again. The band that meant so much to me as a teenager still has a lot of offer a 30-year old. And if nothing else, I’m still blown away by live version of “Join Together/Road Runner/My Generation Blues” from The Kids Are Alright.